Brenda Peynado wastes no time in yanking her reader into her stories – and into the burning issues that consume her. Her debut collection, The Rock Eaters, demonstrate this superbly. "Thoughts and Prayers" and "The Radioactives" are the two tales that bookend The Rock Eaters, and they kick off and conclude the collection with punchy yet lingering impact.
The opening of "Thoughts and Prayers" instantly magnetizes the topic of school shootings by folding in the presence of eerie angels with human faces and the bodies of birds; the opening of "The Radioactives" mashes immigration and farfetched technology into a deconstructed superhero narrative — one that stirs the soul with justice and rage. Just as spectacularly, "Thoughts and Prayers" is a fantasy story, while "The Radioactives" is science fiction — and within that bracket of genres, the author wields a righteous voice that's as frank as it is dreamlike.
As a member of the rare category of writer whose work wins an O. Henry Award as well as appearing in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy anthology, Peynado flaunts breathtaking literary agility. "The Dreamers" — as its title cleverly conveys — probes the overlap of a magically sleepless religious order and young, undocumented immigrants seeking a better life in the United States. A group of high-school students try to juggle their lapses of years spent in hibernation with the fire of their post-adolescence. Within that frantic dynamic, they synch with the earth's deeper cadence, feeling as much affinity for "the cicadas that sleep for decades" as they do with the faith that weighs upon them.
The confluence — rather than the conflict — between human and land suffuses The Rock Eaters. In "The Drownings," teenagers who "touch each other in forbidden places" undertake a mating dance where solid ground gives way to sexual — and even seminal — metaphor. Peynado loves wring double meanings for all they're worth, and in this case, the word "displacement" hints at the simple physics of fluids as well as the ghostly zone of souls estranged from their bodies.
Equally as preoccupied the power of earth as a function of the fantastic is "The Stones of Sorrow Lake." The tale imagines a small, Rust Belt town in which grief grows in the human body like rocky tumors — or some kind of jagged pearls. Peynado spins this farfetched yarn in a matter-of-fact manner, and that only makes the story's uncanny vibe that much more horrifically resonant.
Horror creeps into The Rock Eaters with subtlety, but when it does, it's devastating. "What We Lost" is the shortest story in the book; as such, it's super-concentrated with bone-chilling imagery. In it, a reporter "discovers a trove of ears in a burlap sack, another found a church constructed of knee cartilage."
And that's just in the story's second sentence. From there, a parade of grotesquery ensues, observed with distanced distress by a narrator who remains unnamed — as if the very lack of a name is just one more instance of the mysterious amputation that erodes their very identity. Even more insidious, the truncated length of "What We Lost" feels like a statement in and of itself, as if the story has missing pieces, a formal reflection of Peynado's fixation on disintegration and loss.
"We were the first generation to leave our island country. We were the ones who developed a distinct float to our walk on the day we came of age," begins The Rock Eaters' title story. Peynado is Dominican American; however, she's not speaking of the Dominican Republic, at least not literally. Instead, these islanders trek beyond their mythic homeland not by floating in boats, but via their newfound ability to walk on air. In the author's fabulist hands, the grotesque ritual of eating of rocks becomes a symbol of assimilation and diaspora itself.
Throughout The Rock Eaters, Peynado conjures both the playful sorcery of Kelly Link and the haunted atmosphere of Kali Fajardo-Anstine. But in her search for meaning in the immigrant experience — and the borderlands of emotion, possibility, and belonging — she populates a dimension all her own.
Jason Heller is a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded. He's on Twitter: @jason_m_heller